Canada is under increasing pressure to declare a moratorium on seabed mining just as federal leaders are set to host an international marine conservation summit.
More than 700 international scientists and a multitude of environmental organizations are calling on Canada to ban the search for deep-sea minerals in its own waters and show global leadership by joining a chorus of countries, such as France, Germany, Chile and Pacific Island nations, in calling for a mining ban in shared international waters. The country will host the fifth International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC5) starting Friday in Vancouver.
Seabed mining is the hot-button political issue coming into the conference, said Susanna Fuller, a vice-president of Oceans North.
“It's kind of the environmental decision of our time because it signals that we understand that [resource] exploitation, as we have done it in the past, is no longer acceptable.”
Exploring the deep ocean is akin to exploring space, and scientists are just beginning to grasp the rich variety of species and ecosystems and their importance to the globe and humans, Fuller said.
The largest ecosystem on earth, oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the planet, but only five per cent of that area has been explored and charted by humans. They also play a huge role in mitigating the climate crisis but face a host of human-caused problems, such as warming waters, increased acidification and various types of pollution.
“There's a lot of stresses on our oceans, and the last thing they need is industrial mining to be happening,” Fuller said.
There’s a dearth of scientific information and baseline understanding on deep-sea species and ecosystems, Fuller said. Without that foundation, it’s impossible to understand the risks deep-sea mining could pose to the ocean environment, she said.
“We have an incomplete understanding and knowledge of the ecosystem and its connectedness to ocean health more broadly,” she said.
The science community is concerned deep-sea mining could result in the loss of unique and important species due to the destruction of their seafloor habitat even before they’ve been discovered.
Marine scientists also worry the plumes of sediment, metals and toxins that come from mining will be released into the water column, endangering marine life, including commercially valuable fish such as tuna, and disperse well beyond the mining site, Fuller said.
The deep sea acts as a significant carbon sink, and mining the seafloor could release CO2 trapped in sediment or disrupt the ecosystem’s carbon storage process. Noise pollution from the industrial activity could also stress or harm marine mammals or other marine creatures.
The U.S. states of Oregon, Washington and California on the Pacific coast have all declared bans on deep seabed mining in their territorial waters, Fuller said.
It’s urgent that Canada also join the tide of nations urging a precautionary pause to deep-sea mining and voicing concerns about the International Seabed Authority’s rush to develop mining regulations, which potentially could see mining permits issued as soon as 2024, she said.
A large protest against deep sea mining is taking place at IMPAC5 on Saturday, said Catherine Coumans of Mining Watch Canada.
More than 70 per cent of Canadians oppose deep-sea mining, according to an independent survey commissioned by SeaBlue Canada, a national coalition of Canadian ocean conservation groups, Coumans said.
The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a section of ocean floor as wide as the United States that spans 4.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific between Mexico and Hawaii, is most immediately at risk, she said.
Undercover footage from the latest deep-sea mining tests in the CCZ, conducted by Canadian mining outfit The Metals Company (TMC) and its Swiss operating partner and shareholder AllSeas, showed wastewater sucked up from the seabed was dumped directly onto the sea’s surface.
The footage, obtained by Greenpeace International and Mining Watch Canada, depicted cloudy wastewater containing rock debris and sediment that could potentially impact marine life pouring from the side of the ship, Coumans said.
Scientists contracted to monitor the tests cited concerns around equipment failures, poor sampling practices and flaws in the companies’ science monitoring system, Coumans said.
What’s more, scientists were asked to take water samples from areas outside the debris plume’s path. The footage and concerns were released anonymously by some scientists worried about repercussions for whistleblowing, she said.
TMC said the video captured a minor event involving an overflow of seawater mixed with a small amount of sediment and rock fragments that contained no toxic levels of heavy metals and wouldn’t cause harm to the ocean environment.
A cyclone separator on board the ship experienced minor water overflows intermittently during an eight-hour test run, with the water landing on deck before running overboard, the company said.
TMC wants to suck up fist-sized manganese nodules sitting on the surface of the seabed, which contain cobalt, nickel and copper.
The company, which states it harvested more than 3,000 tonnes of the nodules during its trial, says deep sea mining will “enable the battery-powered shift to clean energy and electric vehicles with the lightest planetary touch.”
It’s a greenwashing tactic that plays on people’s climate anxieties and a falsehood that ocean mining is necessary to transition away from fossil fuels, Coumans said.
“Studies show we have enough metals we need for the energy transition on Earth,” she said.
Mining the ocean also is contrary to a global push to stop relying on newly mined minerals, but rather, do a better job on recycling already mined metals — for example, pulling metals from the tailings of gold mines — or creating a circular economy for recycled metals.
Fuller agreed, saying mining new minerals for renewable energy is unacceptable if tied to irreversible harms to biodiversity.
“We need a real rethink on systems change,” she said, adding Canada has a golden opportunity to declare a moratorium on deep sea mining to develop strong regulations before it starts.
Most of the time, governments attempt to regulate industry after operations are underway and the environmental impacts are already felt, Fuller said.
“It’s almost unprecedented that we could stop an industry before it starts,” she said. “In this case, we don't have to allow it; we can just say no.”